“WE REFER TO THEM AS ’RECALCITRANT RENTAL PROP-erty owners,’ ” a City of Dallas Neighborhood Services Department official chuckled. The comment was meant to be humorous, but it points to a real problem in housing code enforcement in Dallas. Inspectors can’t exactly “call ’em as they see ’em” when it comes to substandard living conditions. In the antiseptic vocabulary of the city bureaucracy, there is no such thing as a “slumlord.”
Yet myriad problems associated with providing housing for low-income families continue to plague our city. There is the obvious urban blight to certain poorer areas of Dallas. There are the health and safety hazards created by deteriorating rental units. And looming on the horizon are acute shortages in governmentally subsidized housing created by gentrification of neighborhoods, loss of units by sale or demolition, and governmental budget cuts.
In order to cut through the red tape that often binds the inspectors’ hands, we promised them anonymity in exchange for their honest appraisals of some of their toughest assignments and most persistent problem eases. At first they were skeptical, but soon we were slogging through squalor, staring at peeling paint, and sidestepping rats and roaches.
We gleaned more information from the files of the Dallas Tenants’ Association. We talked to police, neighborhood residents, and to the renters themselves. We researched property ownership and tax payment records, city citations and demolition orders. and municipal court files for the past three years. And we talked to the property owners-or tried to-and found most of them surprisingly willing to discuss their business and their renters. Three owners put much of the blame for the shameful living conditions on the renters themselves, saying that most of their complaints were last-ditch ploys used by deadheats behind on their rent. “It’s not landlords who make slums. It’s tenants,” said Jack Topletz (page 87) in what became a familiar refrain.
Some of the individuals on our list of “recalcitrant rental property owners’” have only a few properties-others have hundreds. But they all have two things in common: they make Dallas an uglier place than it deserves to be. And they receive little more than a slap on the wrist when they are called to account for the state of their buildings.
“I THINK AMERICANS MUST LIKE RATS BE-cause there are so many here.” The Laotian man shrugs and smiles. He has been living in Dallas at 1604 Annex Ave. for two months. “Every night, there are big. big ones,” he continues, “lots of them.”
At another apartment building on Carroll Avenue, a Cambodian resident points to his flea bites. “I am itchy all over.” he says. “The fleas come from the rats.”
These people, and others in the East Dallas area known as “Little Asia,” pay their rent to L&B Properties. The initials stand for Dr. C. C. Lee and John Benson, two men who work for UTL Corporation, a Dallas electronics firm. The two own 234 apartment units in eleven buildings.
Monthly rents range from $280 to $360, and in some cases, several families share an apartment to make the payments.
City of Dallas Neighborhood Services inspectors are pleased to note that Lee and Benson are “pretty much on schedule” on a long list of repairs presented to bring their structures up to minimum standards. “They have shown some willingness to be helpful at times.”
In fall 1986, L&B installed lights in some of their long, dark corridors in an effort to increase security. But a tour of individual units-their dripping ceilings, taped windows, yellowed paint and draperies-indicates there is still much to be done.
“I could not agree with their maintenance program,” says a former L&B Properties manager. “They don’t trust the managers, and you are questioned about every dime you spend on repairs.”
John Benson says he doesn’t particularly like being called a slumlord, but it’s probably inevitable. “Obviously, charging as low rents as we do, it’s hard to spend as much money as we’d like. If we did. the rents would have to go up drastically. We’ve tried to work with the city, and we’ve been treated pretty well by 90 percent of the inspectors.”
Asocial worker active in the area says that the Asians’ sense of community keeps them in the neighborhood, where familiar languages, foods, and customs are more important than living conditions. For many, life at L&B is better than the tilth and uncertainty of relocation camps in their homelands.
An interpreter speaks for the Laotian resident: “I don’t complain because I don’t know how to say it in English, and I don’t know the rules.”
“RUDE.” -’ANTAGONISTIC.” “UNCOOPERA-tive.” Those are the terms used by renters and housing inspectors alike to describe Christine Chang. She claims she doesn’t know how much property she has: on the city tax rolls, about forty properties arc listed in her name, from vacant lots to apartment buildings, mostly in Oak Lawn and the transitional neighborhood directly south of downtown Dallas. Chang is a familiar face at the Sheriffs Department “Order of Sale” events, purchasing property at auction that is being sold for delinquent tax payment.
“As fast as we can cite ’em, she buys more,” says one Dallas Neighborhood Services inspector. Usually, the tickets are for failure to mow high weeds, or failure to prevent entry to her vacant apartment buildings in the 1300 blocks of both Sanger and Grand avenues. In September 1986, the City of Dallas Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board ordered Chang to refurbish the sixteen Grand Avenue units-at an estimated cost of $56,000-and gave her six months to complete the job.
Chang says the inspectors “have always worked with me, and are very, very cooperative and helpful.” She claims she is plagued by vandalism, theft, and litter at her low-income properties, and even on vacant lots. “I’ll hire a crew to come in and clean up, but people will dump their trash there and litter it right quick,” she says.
In her occupied houses and apartments, rents range from $550 to $700 per month, and residents say for that price, they deserve better maintenance. Some complain that Chang drags her feet on making repairs, then tries to do the work herself or hires “questionable” help.
“After months of asking for something to be fixed,” says one former renter, “she brings people in at night, pays them cashand they’re the kind of people you don’t want to know you have a stereo in there!”
Jack A. Hall Jr.
JACK HALLS BUILDINGS ARE EASY TO SPOT, with no trespassing signs posted prominently. He says the signs keep away “drunks and druggies” who might want to sleep in the hallways, but they also help to ward off city housing inspectors.
Hall owns about a hundred apartment and duplex units, mostly in the North Oak Cliff area. Inspectors say some of the apartments, unsightly inside and out, feature unsafe wiring, sewage problems, holes in floors and ceilings, broken windows, rats, and roaches.
“I don’t have the help that I used to. I get out there and do this stuff myself,” Hall says. “I maintain the buildings to the point where they’re safe. There are some things I don’t get to as quick if they’re not hazards.”
Inspectors see it a little differently. They say Hall must be pressured to do even the minimum required to meet city codes. “And he doesn’t like to get permits,” says one. “Permits require inspections.”
Hall inherited most of his property from his father, who died two years ago. On the city tax rolls, the units are valued at between $5,000 and $82,000 per address. He maintains an oft ice at 701 W. 12th, a building that has been ticketed sporadically by the city since May 1984 as a “bad structure.”
Hall claims he has no problem with most of the inspectors who contact him, but in his words, the “younger, newer inspectors” can be troublesome. “They wanna go by the book, and you can’t operate this stuff by the book, or these people I rent to would be sleeping under the bridges.”
Jesse and Marie Hernandez
THESE RELATIVELY NEW (SINCE 1984) landlords rent mostly to non-English speaking Hispanics, so it’s not surprising that there are few citizen complaints to agencies about living conditions in units owned by the couple.
Instead, housing inspectors discover the more obvious problems-dangerously sagging porches or balconies and trash accumulation-during their routine checks of the North Oak Cliff neighborhoods. Closer looks inside the units reveal leaks and plumbing problems.
“Some of the renters have gone without hot water for months before we find out about it,” says one inspector, who adds a backhanded compliment to Jesse and Marie Hernandez: “I admire their Horatio Alger spirit, but they have bought too many properties to be able to keep up with the maintenance themselves.”
City tax records show the Hernandezes own about a dozen properties, mostly multifamily conversions of large, older homes. The nature of the structural defects leads inspectors to believe the buildings were purchased without much knowledge of construction. When we attempted to talk with Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez, their phone was disconnected, and a letter asking for their comments was not acknowledged.
When faced with a Neighborhood Services ticket, Jesse and Marie Hernandez are “initially cooperative,” according to one inspector, “but no work gets done.”
A LONGTIME DALLAS FAMILY OF ATTOR-neys, the Topletz brothers are referred to by city inspectors as “very sophisticated” in their rental property dealings.
“You can only get as close as the outer office” of their Inwood Road business address, according to one Neighborhood Services inspector, making it difficult to identify them. “In court, their lawyer will ask, ’how can you prove it was this person you talked to on the phone?-and you can’t!”
“They are speculators,” adds another Neighborhood Services staffer. “Yes, they do own a lot of property, and yes, it is trashy, but at least they have an office, they sign for certified mail and violation notices, which many do not.”
Jack Topletz is described as the “man on the street,” responsible for rent collection and maintenance. His brother Harold Topletz does the legal legwork, including property transfers from one family member’s name to another. Harold’s son Dennis Topletz appears on behalf of the family at Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board hearings.
Topletz-owned properties number in the hundreds. As Jack Topletz jokingly puts it, “If you know how many you have, you don’t have many!” Most are single-family homes, with values that generally range from $7,000 to $35,000, in neighborhoods that border Love Field or Fair Park.
And yet, Jack Topletz says, “We’re in the investment business, not the rental business.” He characterizes the typical complaining tenant as one who is behind on rent payments and wants to buy time before being evicted. He calls this niche of society the “under the market” group, with no credit, no references, and little money.
“So we move them into a house for $100 or $150 a month,” he explains, “and the house is in terrible condition. But you can’t change a person’s lifestyle. If they want repairs, we’ll do anything they want-but we’ll have to advance their rent accordingly.”
In the past three years, the URSB has considered nine Topletz-related properties for repair or demolition. One case in particular seems to bear out the family’s management style: a renter who paid $150 per month claimed (according to written records of the meeting) that he had “asked [Harold] Topletz to make repairs during winter; that they had no windows or gas meter. …” Also from the hearing record: “Mr. [Dennis] Topletz stated that their houses are rented ’as is,’ a tenant’s rent is charged in proportion with the condition of the structure.”
It is an interesting coincidence that a Topletz relative, Marvin L. Levin, was appointed to the URSB in 1981 by then-coun-cilwoman Elsie Faye Heggins, and heard a number of cases involving Topletz-owned properties during his four-year term. Today, Marvin Levin shares a business address with the Topletz firm.
“What gripes me is those red tags,” Jack Topletz says, referring to the official notices that label a building unfit for human habitation. “When an inspector puts one of those up, to my mind, he’s the judge and jury.
“I call em the ’Red Tag Happy Boys.’ They’d stick one on you if you’d stand still long enough!”
Topletz municipal court cases since 1984 number thirty-three. The charges are “Urban Rehabilitation” (maintenance or structural problems), high weeds, or litter. Apparently, the family legal expertise has paid off-thirty-two cases were dismissed. Only one has resulted in a guilty verdict and a fine of $39.50. “We fight em,” Jack Top-letz says, and the battles include restraining orders and appeals to district court-tactics designed to discourage even the most zealous of the “Red Tag Happy Boys.”
Mt. Calvary Baptist Church
“HIS HEART IS IN THE RIGHT PLACE. Byou don’t run a housing project with yourheart.” That’s how one federal Housing andm Development employee describes the stormy saga of the Rev. Robert Bell and the Calvary Arms Apartments.
Bell’s congregation at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, 4703 Sunnyvale, purchased the nearby apartment complex on Ledbetter in 1971. intent on leasing to needy families as part of its ministry to the poor. The Calvary Arms Charitable Trust receives a monthly subsidy from the federal government to keep rents low in the eighty-six-unit complex.
In recent months, most of the money has been-of necessity-pumped back into the deteriorating property, at the insistence of the City of Dallas Neighborhood Services Department. Calvary Arms management entered into an agreement with the city on September 15. 1986, to correct code violations found in all eighty-six units. They ineluded roof leaks, plumbing problems, sinking commodes, and kitchen cabinets slipping off of walls. Repairs, which are to be made by February 28, 1987, were well under way in December.
A combination of shoddy upkeep and management changes has contributed to the downhill slide of Calvary Arms. The Rev. Bell has had to step in twice over the years and manage the property himself. “He gets very indignant that we’d send him a notice [of violations),” one inspector says. “He thinks we’re picking on him.” Warren Gilbert of Eastfield Management .Company began administering day-to-day business at the complex in 1986. Gilbert repeatedly failed to return phone calls, and numerous attempts to contact a church spokesperson were unsuccessful.
Southern Oaks Estates
JANUARY 10, 1986, WAS A FATEFUL DAY FOR this South Dallas apartment complex, as city fire and building inspectors descended by the dozens, notebooks in hand, for what they call “concentrated code enforcement.”
When the inspection was finished, they had combed all 504 Southern Oaks Estates units, and placarded sixty-five of them as “unfit for human occupancy.”
“There were pools of sewage in some yards,” one supervisor remembers, “and extension cords ran across the parking lots from building to building to supply electricity. It was incredible.” While much of the Name for the abysmal conditions can be laid squarely at the feet of owners and managers, the situation was exacerbated by vandalism of many empty apartments. On one occasion, two youngsters lobbed homemade explosives onto the transformer building that supplied the complex with electricity, knocking out power to half the units.
“Those people were their own worst enemies,” sighs Russell Chiasson, the Dallas financial planner who represents the limited partnership of forty owners/investors in Southern Oaks. When they purchased the complex in summer 1984, they knew it would be a difficult endeavor-twenty-year-old structures, with no master plan of underground sewer, water, or air conditioning systems. The savings and loan that provided financing went under, and new potential buyers were discouraged by the resulting financial tangle. Finally, in November 1986, the limited partnership filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Chiasson vacated and fenced the huge complex.
The sight of 504 empty apartment units is a cruel irony in a city without an adequate supply of low-income housing. Chiasson has not given up, though, in his quest to rehabil itate the property. “We have several potential local buyers,” he said in late December, “and we’re still meeting with the city.” The meetings may net a low-interest loan to help finance what will certainly be a long and expensive redevelopment process. The city cannot act on the request until it has received bids from building contractors, and most important, a letter of commitment from a private lender to loan the owners at least hall of the total cost of the work.
NEIGHBORS OF HIS EAST DALLAS-LAKE-wood area properties have an interesting moniker for Scott Belsley. They call him a “land hyena,” an unflattering term for a speculator. They remember when, two years ago, his San Juan Apartments at 4526 Munger Ave. were red-tagged and ordered vacated by the city for building code violations. . .and they’re still not crazy about the idea of living nearby. Dallas Police are called regularly to answer complaints of noise, fights, thefts, drugs and shootings, in an area with a crime rate police say is double that of the average Dallas neighborhood.
Belsley is a young Richardson accountant and real estate developer who owns 2,500 apartment units in buildings that stretch from Garland to Fort Worth. He has a staff of six district managers and sixty on-site managers, but when code violations arise, it is Belsley who gets the tickets and certified letters from inspectors. Dallas city records for the past three years cite sporadic litter and structural problems, rats, roaches, holes in walls and windows, and no air conditioning.
“I think the biggest problem we’ve got is communication,” says Belsley of the inspectors. “I’ll be honest with you, everything that’s wrong doesn’t get fixed immediately. I like to buy an old crummy building and fix it up, and that takes time.” Belsley complains that sometimes the tenants or on-site managers are cited, when the inspectors could call him. But the inspectors say they have trouble reaching him. “He is very cooperative at first,” says one, “but you’ve really got to babysit him to get the work done.”
Since 1984, Belsley has been summoned to municipal court twenty-two times to answer to inspectors’ charges. “Do you know how much of my time that takes?” he says. “It’s just like a traffic ticket, only every time the judge has assessed me the maximum fine.” Belsley says he usually appeals the case to a higher court. “Sooner or later,” he explains, “the inspector doesn’t show up to testify, and then I get out of it.”
Municipal court records show Belsley has pleaded guilty eleven times, not guilty six times, no contest five times. He was found guilty fifteen times, and the other seven cases were dismissed for compliance. He has paid $582.50 in city court fines-an average of less than $40 per violation.
Today, the San Juan Apartments, with their new coat of paint, look pretty decent compared to similar complexes in the area. Neighbors have a theory about the improvement. “I think [Belsley| is trying harder because he knows he’s being watched,” says one if the pressure comes off, I have no doubt it will slide backward even more.”